Unlikely Allies and Uncomfortably Large Coalitions

In the Midwest, fights against CO2 pipelines are creating unlikely political bedfellows

By Ben Jealous

August 12, 2023

A sign opposing proposed carbon-capture pipelines is seen on a manure spreader

A sign opposing two proposed carbon-capture pipelines on the farm owned by Raymond and Kathy Stockdale in Iowa Falls. | Photo by Francis Chung/E&E News/POLITICO via AP Images

Distributed by Trice Edney Newswire 

“Spend your energy figuring out what’s the one thing that you can agree on with a political foe,” General Colin Powell told me years ago. “Figure that out and you can get a lot done.”

From Illinois to North Dakota, we’re seeing that saying proven true across the Midwest as unlikely allies with different interests and perspectives are joined together in fighting against several multistate carbon dioxide pipelines proposed by huge agribusiness and fossil fuels companies.

For some, it’s as simple as private companies trying to take private land that belongs to someone else to make private profit for themselves. For others, the concern about carbon dioxide pipelines is based in worries that they will extend our reliance on dirty fuels and prolong pollution from industrial farming and the ethanol producers it supplies. No matter the reason, people see the pipelines as unnecessary, destructive to precious land, and potentially dangerous.

“We might not agree on a lot of things, but this is something we will all oppose, these pipelines,” says Kim Juncker, who farms land with her husband in Butler County, Iowa, that could be grabbed for what’s called the Navigator project. “We will lock arms on this one.”

Juncker calls herself a “constitutional conservative” and explains her political leanings and, in her view, those of many landowners simply: “We like our property rights, and we like our freedom.”

Environmental activists have seen that opposing pipelines demands the voice of the people who own land that they don’t want to sell to the developers.

For their part, landowners appreciate that environmental groups bring their organizing experience and their capacity to monitor the smallest details in the fight. One of the biggest challenges is the fact that farmers are busy farming and can’t make opposition a full-time job.

Tim Baughman, who owns land with his sister in Crawford County, Iowa, that could be disrupted by the Summit Pipeline, attended a safety meeting with the developer last week; the only reason he learned of the session was hearing about it from a farmer in another part of the state. In turn, he does his best to keep two other landowners informed. They’re among nine in the county who haven’t signed voluntary easements for the pipeline to cross their land, and they are less connected to the digital world, he says.

More than 150 landowners now join weekly Zoom calls with environmentalists to share information and strategy. One outcome is that more than 460 landowners have filed to intervene when the Iowa Utilities Board holds its hearing in a few weeks over the Summit Pipeline’s request to take land through eminent domain. That’s no small feat given that Baughman’s own filing to intervene was 51 pages long.

Our system allows for the power of enough people to thwart the power of money, which the pipeline developers certainly have. That’s how opponents have managed to claim some big wins.

In North Dakota, the public service commission last week denied Summit the permit it needs to move forward, citing issues from impact on cultural sites and wildlife areas to property values; the company can reapply. In Iowa, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have significantly limited the pipelines’ ability to take land involuntarily. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans voted in support of the measure, but the bill unfortunately was killed in the state senate.

To really harness that people power, we need to build coalitions that are uncomfortably large. That’s what pipeline opponents have done. People who question whether carbon is damaging the climate are fighting alongside people who question the role of biofuels in prolonging our fossil fuel addiction.

In a country that can feel so divided, there’s promise in that beyond the pipeline fight. As General Powell told me, “As you win one victory together, you might just discover along the way that there’s something else you agree on.”